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What if Robert Kraft had never bought the Patriots?

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Say hello to the New England... Browns?

The Hall at Patriot Place

In 1992, the New England Patriots changed ownership for the second time in a four-year span when James Busch Orthwein bought the franchise for $110 million. Under his leadership, it underwent drastic changes. Bill Parcells was brought out of retirement to become head coach, New England drafted Drew Bledsoe with the first overall pick in 1993, and the traditional red and white color scheme and logo were changed.

All those changes were not enough for Orthwein, though: he wanted the NFL to return to his hometown of St. Louis. With the Cardinals having left in 1988 and, surprisingly, no expansion franchise awarded to the city since (Carolina and Jacksonville won the bid in 1993), Orthwein and the Patriots were the most likely candidate to bring professional football back to the Gateway to the West.

New England’s new owner, a member of the member of the Anheuser-Busch family, had a concrete plan in mind: re-locate the Patriots after the 1993 season, start playing in the newly-built Trans World (later Edward Jones) Dome and re-name the team the St. Louis Stallions, which was also the proposed name of a St. Louis expansion franchise. Orthwein was convinced his plan would work; a logo was designed and caps were manufactured.

There was only one problem: Foxboro Stadium. The Patriots’ lease was running through the 2002 season and stadium owner Robert Kraft did not want to let the team out of it. Orthwein offered Kraft $75 million to buy out the remainder of the lease but Kraft refused to accept. The negotiations between the two men ended with Kraft buying the franchise for a ten-record $172 million, saving it from relocation.

But what if the long-time Patriots fan hadn’t invested in the team and instead opted to go for the buy-out? The NFL as we now know it might look a lot differently.

It all would have started with the Patriots leaving town in 1994. No matter how much success they might have had during the 1993 season, Orthwein wanted a team in his hometown. With the franchise going to St. Louis and becoming the Stallions, New England would have become an empty spot on the NFL map — but possibly not for long considering how much movement there was around the league in the 1990s and early 2000s.

But let’s go one step into another direction, to a franchise that would also have been affected by a Patriots relocation: the Los Angeles Rams. Team owner Georgia Frontiere wanted to move the struggling club away from L.A. and in 1995 finally received approval to move to St. Louis. The city was not her first choice, however, as she initially wanted the Rams to be relocated to Baltimore.

The move was voted down by the other owners, and Frontiere went after her second target city. If that city already had a team, however, it would have been eliminated from contention: the Rams would not have made St. Louis a city with two pro football clubs. As a result, Frontiere might have fought harder to get to Baltimore — as hard as she eventually fought for her rights to move the club to Missouri when the threat of a lawsuit changed the other owners’ minds.

So by the 1995 season, the NFL could have looked like this had Kraft not bought the Patriots: the team itself is playing in St. Louis as the Stallions, with the Rams having just moved to Baltimore to become... the Baltimore Rams? The Ravens? Speaking of the Ravens: the team arrived in Baltimore in 1996 — after Frontiere’s Rams had moved to St. Louis — when Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell decided to relocate his own team.

Needless to say that Modell would not have announced moving his club to Baltimore if the Rams were already in town. Instead, he would have looked elsewhere and may have found a possible destination in the biggest city in the United States without a football team at the time: Boston. While the Patriots were not exactly a model franchise for their first thirty years, pro football did have support in the region as evidenced by the club selling out every home game since Robert Kraft bought it.

Modell moving the Browns to New England might have created a similar dynamic two years after the original Patriots had left. That we can only speculate about, but what we do know is that Bill Belichick would never have become head coach in New England had the Browns moved there: Belichick was fired by Modell before his team’s relocation, and it would be hard imagining him returning to the sidelines for the franchise at one point.

Of course, this is just one potential scenario that might have unfolded had Robert Kraft not bought the Patriots in January 1994. New England also could have received an expansion team in 2002 — sorry, Houston Texans — had the Patriots left town. Or maybe they would have never actually left, and instead opted to play out their lease at Foxboro Stadium until after the 2001 season.

All we do know is this: Kraft’s investment paid off big time as the Patriots turned into the NFL’s premier franchise under his leadership. The team has reached ten Super Bowls in his 25 years of ownership, winning six titles and seeing its overall value increase to approximately $3.8 billion — or, taking inflation into account, roughly $3.5 billion more than Kraft paid Orthwein when he acquired the Patriots in the first place.